Machu Picchu is perhaps the quintessential bucket list travel destination. I’m not sure I know anyone who doesn’t want to go there. My family and I got to cross it off our list after an epic vacation to South America that we planned for
2020 2021 2022. (We had to postpone it twice because of the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Inca Empire was the largest empire in pre-Columbian America. It stretched from what is now Colombia to Chile. Its capital was in the city of Cusco, Peru. The region surrounding Cusco is known as the Sacred Valley and that is where you’ll find the highest concentration of ruins.
Machu Picchu is the most preserved of the Incan ruins and is located in a breathtaking site, but it is just one of many Incan sites that you should consider visiting in Peru’s Sacred Valley.
The first Incan site that we visited was Pisac, an archaeological complex located near the village with the same name. Agricultural terraces were built on top of a mountain and have some spectacular views.
The Inca farmers had very sophisticated channels for irrigation.
One of the Andean villages we visited was Chinchero. We saw an incredible view overlooking the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
High up on the plains surrounded by snow-capped mountains, we explored the archaeological site of Moray. The Inca built a farm consisting of concentric terraces into a natural depression in the landscape. We learned about how the different levels had different microclimates (temperatures, water levels, sunlight, etc.). The Inca farmers experimented with finding the optimal conditions for each crop.
In Maras, we explored the fascinating salt evaporation ponds. A saltwater spring feeds the ponds which are then allowed to dry out and crystallize the salt. This site, which is still used today, has been operating since the pre-Inca period.
The town of Ollantaytambo was built on top of original Inca foundations. It is the best surviving example of Inca town planning. The town is divided into blocks, each block with an entrance that leads into a central courtyard that is surrounded by houses.
Ollantaytambo has some pretty spectacular ruins with equally spectacular views of the mountains.
It amazes me that the Inca were able to transport and cut such large rocks without modern technology.
Each one of these monoliths (blocks) weighs about as much as 30 cars! And they transported them from the top of another mountain, across a river, and up this mountain. Unbelievable!
Machu Picchu looks amazing in the pictures, right? This is the iconic view that you have likely seen before.
I can promise you that it is even more incredible in person. While the Sacred Valley is mostly dry, Machu Picchu is located in the jungle. We took the train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu and it is amazing how the landscape changes during a 90-minute ride. The mountains that surround Machu Picchu are towers of green. The sight is truly breathtaking.
Other sites were far more important to the Inca than Machu Picchu. What makes Machu Picchu special is that the Spanish Conquistadors didn’t find it, so the buildings were not modified by the Spanish. Over the centuries, the jungle reclaimed Machu Picchu and it wasn’t discovered again until the 19th century. Since then, much of it has been restored and is continuing to be restored. It gives us an amazing glimpse into Inca culture and that is why it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We learned about the different buildings at Machu Picchu and how they were used. The Temple of the Sun was used for worship. It is the only building with a round shape.
The terraces are covered with grass. It appeared to us that instead of mowing, they allow llamas to roam around and eat the grass instead.
We encountered one who was kind enough to pose for a photo. 😉
Llamas weren’t the only animals we saw. I also encountered a dog wandering around.
Very fit and adventurous travelers may want to climb Huayna Picchu, the iconic peak that overlooks Machu Picchu. We went back to Machu Picchu a second day because my husband and kids wanted to climb it.
The views from the top are stunning.
I have a history of altitude sickness, so I decided to forgo any strenuous activity. While the rest of my family was climbing Huayna Picchu, I spent time photographing the ruins. Here are some of my favorites.
Cusco (or Cuzco as the Spanish spell it) was the capital of Incan Empire. It is a UNESCO World Heritage City. It was conquered by the Spaniards in the 16th century who kept the structure of the city, but replaced the Inca buildings with churches and palaces. One of those is Cusco Cathedral, one of the finest Colonial Cathedrals in the Americas. Construction started in 1560 and was completed in 1664.
The Temple of Coricancha was the most important temple in the Inca Empire. It was dedicated to the Sun God, who was their primary deity. The walls and floors were once covered in sheets of solid gold, and the courtyard was filled with golden statues. Spanish reports tell of its opulence that was “fabulous beyond belief”. Most of the temple was destroyed by the Spanish. They built a monastery on top of it.
I thought the art in the monastery was fascinating. The indigenous people were taught European painting techniques, but they added their own twist to it. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to photograph the art.
Another important ruin near Cusco is the Fortress of Sacsayhuamán. It is impressive because of the size of the stones used in its construction. Some of the stones weighed as much as 100 cars. I would love to have a time machine so I could go back and watch them build it. As the owner of a travel agency named Big Rock Travel, I had to pose for a picture in front of these really big rocks!
Our final stop on our tour of the Incan ruins in Cusco was Tambomachay. This place was reserved for the Inca Royalty. It consists of a group of walls connected by stairs, with springs of water that cascade through several channels to a pool.
We also had lots of local culture sprinkled in with our tours of the ruins. As an animal lover, I loved having the opportunity to feed llamas and alpacas. They were just sooooo cute.
We also immensely enjoyed the textile demonstrations done by the Andean women. We learned about how they dye the yarn (red dye comes from smashed bugs!) and weave it into blankets and scarves. Not only does this center preserve the culture, it provides employment for local women. We were happy to support their efforts by buying some souvenirs to bring home. All of us went home with alpaca blankets.
We loved shopping in the colorful markets in the different towns we visited.
Some of the markets were bigger than others and had specialty shops like this one that sells musical instruments.
Other markets were quite simple: Andean women spread their goods out on a blanket.
We also enjoyed trying Peruvian cuisine, in restaurants as well as street food. We had some freshly baked empanadas at one of our stops.
Another treat that I liked was choclo – a Peruvian version of corn-on-the-cob. The kernels are very large compared to the corn we are used to in the US.
Peru grows more varieties of potatoes than anywhere else in the world. I enjoyed hearing the story about one bumpy type of potato. In order to prove themselves worthy, before getting married, young women must demonstrate to their future mothers-in-law that they can peel one of these potatoes.
Potatoes are often dried to preserve them. One Andean woman demonstrated how she stomps the potatoes with her bare feet before they are dried. I had heard of grape stomping before, but not potato stomping. Check out the video.
Peru also offered some different meats than what we are accustomed to, including alpaca and cuy. Cuy is a Peruvian guinea pig. This cute little guy might look like a pet, but he’s also on the menu.
Peru has a lot of different festivals throughout the year. We didn’t plan our trip around one, but were lucky enough to stumble upon one. We enjoyed watching the dancers in their colorful costumes.
We were lucky enough to snag a table at a restaurant with a great view of the festivities. We watched the performances as we ate lunch.
Before I close, I want to address altitude sickness. I am someone who has issues at high altitudes. It seems to be hereditary because it also affected my father and on this trip it affected my son. Before I left for the trip, I scheduled an appointment with my physician’s office and they prescribed some medication for me to take. I took it and did OK on the trip. I did tire more easily, but I didn’t become physically ill. My son passed out on our first day. Fortunately, our tour guide was carrying cans of oxygen. I could tell that the locals were accustomed to travelers fainting because they were helpful and didn’t panic. Even knowing that I might have some issues, I still scheduled this trip, came prepared, and I SO GLAD I did.
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This trip was one of my favorite trips ever. You might be able to tell by the length of this article! There was just so much I wanted to share. For many people, visiting Peru, Machu Picchu, and the Sacred Valley, is a trip of a lifetime. I would love to help you plan your trip. Please read about how my services work and then email or call me to set up a complimentary consultation.